Sage Rosenfels column: NFL owners should listen to what players are saying

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Warning: Story contains coarse language

It’s almost impossible for NFL ownership and players to agree on anything - but this weekend showed they are united against someone who is doing his best to divide this country and the league.

The back and forth between NFL ownership, its players, and the President of the United States was at the forefront of Sunday’s NFL games. The president, who believes he can have players "fired" for peacefully protesting (an ethics violation), had some of his power taken away by the NFL.

The first part of Donald Trump’s rally speech in Alabama - when he told owners to fire players for kneeling during the national anthem while calling the players a “son of a bitch” - intensified an already hot topic.

When Colin Kaepernick sat, and then knelt, during the 2016 preseason, it started a national conversation about patriotism, freedom of speech, social inequality, and frequently wandered into a myriad of other social issues. Now that Trump has united the players and most owners, what can this solidarity do to help address the issues the players are kneeling for in the first place? That is the next step in this conversation.

My hope is that, after this sign of owner and player unity, those in power will start to listen to the concerns of those who are protesting. The president has pushed to have these protests silenced. If the owners are truly united with the players on their ability to speak freely, I suggest the owners listen.

There are 32 NFL teams and 31 owners (the Green Bay Packers are owned by its shareholders). Each of these 31 owners is a billionaire, some through other businesses and some through owning their NFL franchise. Either way, their power and influence is enormous.

They have the capability to affect change in this country, whether through financial donations to political parties or candidates, or through causes they want to promote such as the military, breast cancer, or domestic violence awareness.

If the owners are going to stand locked arm-in-arm with their players, who sacrifice their bodies and brains for the owners’ financial gain and entertainment, they need to be the first to sit down with them and listen to their reasons for protest.

NFL players and owners have a huge platform to promote whatever they choose as important. Since 2009, when the league started having players on the field for the national anthem, the NFL has promoted the military much more than in the past. The owners have also received millions of dollars from the defense department and National Guard for these promotions.

With such a huge audience, the league can influence others. In this situation, the league is profiting while helping the military push its agenda of recruiting soldiers. Whether you agree or disagree with this influence is a personal opinion, and the league has a right to do as they please. Either way, it is true.

Former POW and current Arizona senator John McCain stated: “Fans should have the confidence that their hometown heroes are being honored because of their honorable military service, not as a marketing ploy.” McCain stated this as part of a joint oversight report released titled “Tackling Paid Patriotism.” The NFL chooses its causes strategically, and can have a huge influence on the conversation their players are attempting to create.

I asked former NFL quarterback Jake Plummer - who was a friend and teammate of Pat Tillman - what Tillman would have thought of Sunday’s protests. Tillman, a former NFL player who was killed by friendly fire while serving in Afghanistan, has been regularly used as a propaganda piece to support military’s agenda since his death.

“Pat would have loved Kaepernick," Plummer said. "He would have been interested in talking to him about being born mixed race, adopted by two white parents, and the struggles that go along with that. I also don’t think he would have liked how he was and is used to promote the military. He was all about freedom of speech. He was a genuine and caring person.”

The NFL and the military have developed a relationship which is beneficial to both parties. It’s at least time we acknowledge it.

Also, what many don’t realize is that a college or NFL locker room is made of people who come from all walks of life. There are different races, religions, ethnicities, socioeconomic backgrounds, and opinions that are all over the map. The amazing thing is that, despite these differences, the players and coaches come together to dedicate themselves to one goal.

Even though a few marquee players - Drew Brees among them - disagree with the method of protest, NFL players are a close-knit group of men who stand up for each other. When Trump attacked the players who are protesting, he also attacked those who weren’t. Since Trump has never been on a football team, nor would NFL owners ever allow him to purchase a team, this is something he unsurprisingly wouldn’t understand.

I believe broadcaster and NFL Hall of Famer Howie Long had one of the most important statements of the weekend:

“In a league that is comprised of 70 percent African-American players, if you’re a white player in an NFL locker room, that puts you in a position to try to better understand the struggles, and, subsequently as we have seen, show your support for the teammates in your own way. Understanding starts with a dialogue, and the most important part of dialogue is to listen.”

This story is a national conversation because of three different platforms.

Some players have decided to use theirs to spotlight issues regarding inequality and police brutality. The president, who doesn’t agree with their concerns or their method of protest, uses his platform to push his agenda. Lastly, the owners now hold the most important cards in this game before the game. If they stand in solidarity with their players, they need to listen to their concerns. This is how change happens.

The NFL owners can sway this conversation in either direction. They can stifle the voices of their players because they either disagree with their opinions or don’t want to hurt their bottom line, or they can work with their players to help our country better understand their perceived inequalities. We shall see if the owners are only making a symbolic gesture or not.

The owners can step up and unite our country, or they can let the president’s words divide us. This is their individual choice.


On a not-completely-unrelated side note, Trump said something else that rang tone deaf in that Alabama rally speech. Trump bemoaned the fact the NFL is trying to make the game safer for its players by penalizing hard hits to the head, or hits on defenseless players with the crown of a player’s helmet.

Plummer reacted strongly to Trump wanting more vicious hits.

“It’s obvious Donald Trump never played football.” said Plummer. “It’s offensive that Trump doesn’t understand how bad many former players have it right now. As humans, we must evolve. The NFL must evolve, too, if it wants to survive, and the rules that are in place are an attempt to save the game.

"He is focused on hits not being fierce enough instead of nuclear bombs and health care.”

While these rules aren’t perfect, and occasionally players get penalized for legal hits, the NFL knows it has a serious long-term problem regarding brain injuries and CTE. Though these rules are put in place to protect players from head injuries, they don’t seem to quench Trump’s thirst for more violence.

(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)